[Marxism] US Arab Spring policy? Third party counter-revolution

Chris Slee chris_w_slee at hotmail.com
Sat Mar 11 01:22:34 MST 2017

Responding to a couple of points in Michael Karadjis' article:

1. Michael portrays the Turkey-backed rebels as the main fighters against ISIS. He says:  "The US (let alone Russia!) has never given air support to rebel offensives against ISIS before because these rebels also want to continue fighting Assad (ie, being *rebels*), which is a red line for the US. That is despite the fact that the rebels drove ISIS permanently out of the whole of western Syria in 2014, without the support of any air cover, indeed with Assad’s air force bombing them to support ISIS."

A contributing factor to the setback for ISIS in 2014 was the split with Jabhat al-Nusra.  ISIS and Nusra were previously part of the same organisation.  They split in April 2013.  Large scale fighting between the two groups began in May 2014.

While ISIS was driven out of western Syria, Nusra remained, and continued to impose an oppressive regime on the people it ruled.  For example, it forced the Druze to convert to Sunni Islam.  While ISIS was expelled, ISIS-style politics remained.

Nusra also attacked secular Free Syrian Army groups.  In July 2014, and again in October 2014, Nusra attacked the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, killing many SRF members.

The SRF collapsed but some of the survivors fled to Efrin and helped to form Jaysh al-Thuwar (Army of Revolutionaries), which later became part of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

By contrast, some other rebel groups remained allied to Nusra.  This helped give a reactionary flavour to the rebel movement in general.

Referring to the 2016-2017 period, Michael says that "...Turkey/FSA have driven ISIS from a great swathe of territory in northern Syria...".  

In the early stages of their move into the area along the border previously held by ISIS, Turkey and its allied rebel groups met little resistance, and pro-SDF media argued that there was a deal whereby ISIS withdrew from a strip along the border allowing Turkey to take over.

However when Turkey wanted to take al-Bab, ISIS did resist successfully for a considerable period.  PKK leader Murat Karayilan has claimed that a new deal was eventually worked out between Turkey and ISIS, whereby ISIS withdrew in return for ammunition and other supplies:

Karayilan also argued that Turkey's frequent attacks across the border into Rojava are aimed at making the YPG keep part of its forces on the Turkish border, weakening the SDF offensive against ISIS in Raqqa. 

Turkey collaborated with ISIS for several years to attack Rojava and the broader north Syria federation.  But this was a tactical alliance based on having a common enemy, and is not necessarily long-lasting.  ISIS has at various times fought against other Turkey-backed groups.

What the groups backed by Turkey have in common is that they are all hostile to the PYD and the revolutionary process it has led in Rojava, which has begun to spread to other parts of northern Syria.

2. Michael accuses the YPG of contributing to Assad's capture of eastern Aleppo, by cutting both the road from Aleppo north to the Turkish border, and the Castello Road, which linked rebel-held eastern Aleppo to rebel-held areas further west.

To put this in context, since 2012 there has been a 3-way conflict in Aleppo between the Assad regime, Turkish backed rebel groups and the YPG/YPJ - the latter being based in the predominantly Kurdish district of Sheikh Maqsoud.  There is a long history of attacks by reactionary rebel groups on Sheikh Maqsoud.  According to the Kurdish Question website, such attacks began in 2012 and have continued intermittently since then:

Amnesty International has condemned the rebel attacks on Sheikh Maqsoud:

I am not familiar with all the details of the battle for Aleppo.  But if the YPG's efforts to break the siege of Sheikh Maqsoud had the side effect of helping the Assad regime defeat the rebels in eastern Aleppo, a large part of the responsibility lies with reactionary elements of the rebel movement.

Chris Slee

From: Michael Karadjis <mkaradjis at gmail.com>
Sent: Thursday, 9 March 2017 1:42 AM
To: Chris Slee; Activists and scholars in Marxist tradition
Subject: Re: [Marxism] US Arab Spring policy? Third party counter-revolution

Chris writes, regarding the article from the excellent Eternal Spring site that I sent, that:
“The author of this article describes the Syrian Democratic Forces as "counter-revolutionary", whereas the Free Syrian Army are the "real" rebels.”
While I sent the article because I strongly agree with its overall political line (and always do with Eternal Spring), I disagree with the use of the term “counterrevolutionary” as a straight adjective for the SDF/PYD in paragraph II. Despite my sharp criticisms of these forces, including times when they have played an openly counterrevolutionary role, in the messy situation of the Syrian revolution I recognise they have led their own revolutionary process (which has both deeply positive aspects alongside some very imperfect aspects, like others); and while they collaborate with Assad, Russia and the US, this is only for pragmatic reasons as they look out for their own interests, rather than because they are solidly tied to the counterrevolutionary aims of these powers.
Chris doesn’t like the author calling the FSA “real rebels” by way of contrast. But the author does not say “the real revolutionaries” or some such concoction that sectarian leftists might use: he explains in his article that by “rebels” he means those who actually *rebel* - ie, against the regime in control of massively armed state machine in power, the bloody Assad tyranny – and so this excludes not only the various microscopic ex-rebel forces the US has co-opted to fight ISIS ONLY while quitting the fight against Assad – eg, Division 30 (the famous 54), the ‘New Syrian Army’ (another flop in the southeast), Mutassem Brigade (now co-opted by Turkey) etc – but also the YPG/SDF, which as we know likewise does not fight the regime.
Of course, the main point of the article is to explain this US strategy, which he calls “Third party counterrevolution” or “regime preservation by proxy.” That is, rather than line up directly with the regime like the Russian imperialist invasion has done, US strategy does so in a more roundabout way, by co-opting former individual rebel fighters and prodding them to stop fighting the regime and instead to become a US-backed Sawhat. (Even in the case of the genuine FSA units that the US has given some minimal backing to over time, the longer term process also resulted in US pressure for them to drop the fight against Assad and only fight jihadists, but with mixed results: I intend to publish on this issue soon, but Eternal Spring doesn’t go into that here).
In this sense, we can distinguish the YPG/SDF from the tiny US proxy groups, because it already exists in its own right as a mass force with its own aims. Therefore, US support for it against ISIS cannot be called counterrevolutionary as such; the fact that they *only* fight ISIS and not the regime is their own sovereign decision for their own pragmatic reasons, however narrow, which happens to perfectly correspond to US objectives, unlike the ex-FSA micro-groups who quit their entire purpose to become US proxies.
But what the author is trying to establish is that the reason the YPG/SDF have been given the most massive US support of any force in Syria, including systematic use of the US air force for 2.5 years, several air bases in Rojava, hundreds of US special forces etc, is not due to the revolutionary aspects of these forces, but because they stand aside from the main theatre of revolution, because they don’t fight Assad, because they are not rebels. However rev-perfect it may be inside Rojava (a disputed point in itself), as long as that revolution does not spread within Syria or link and become part of the bigger one, yes the US can well support it without it being any threat.

Chris complains that:
“He/she [it is a he – MK] does not recognise that some FSA units have been co-opted by Turkey and used in its counter-revolutionary military intervention in Syria.  Turkey, with the aid of these groups, has seized Syrian territory in the north of Aleppo province.”
I’m not sure whether the author “recognises” this or not, since it is not what the article is about, although he could well have included this, because in fact it does bear some similarity to the rest of the US Sawhat program, and to the YPG/SDF itself: the Turkish-led FSA Euphrates Shield (ES) operation also *only* fights ISIS and *not* the Assad regime.
However, most of the large rebel formations of the north are at least partly represented in Euphrates Shield, both FSA and Islamist (except Nusra/JFS of course); and elsewhere in Syria, these very same militia are fighting the regime and still, rightly, see it as the main enemy. Yes, one may argue they have been co-opted by Turkey in the ES operation; and the fact that this time (unlike when Turkey first suggested driving ISIS from the Jarablus-Azaz region in 2015), Turkey/FSA have got support from the US, and indeed even more prominently from Russia, is precisely because this time, in this zone, the rebels are not fighting Assad. So the same Russia that has been bombing in support of Turkey and the FSA against ISIS in this region is bombing these very same FSA and Islamist brigades right now in south and west Aleppo, Idlib and elsewhere; and the very same US which has also lobbed a few bombs in support of Turkey/FSA against ISIS in this region has never before given air cover to any FSA/rebel offensives against ISIS; the US only gives air support to the YPG/SDF against ISIS in northern Syria, and to Assad against ISIS in the south (especially Deir Ezzor, but also the very direct and open role just played by the US in bombing together with Assad and Russia in their latest reconquest of Palmyra).
The US (let alone Russia!) has never given air support to rebel offensives against ISIS before because these rebels also want to continue fighting Assad (ie, being *rebels*), which is a red line for the US. That is despite the fact that the rebels drove ISIS permanently out of the whole of western Syria in 2014, without the support of any air cover, indeed with Assad’s air force bombing them to support ISIS.
But then why are these rebel brigades, which are still *rebels* elsewhere in Syria, acting as Turkey/US/Russia proxies in this region? Quite simply, because here they are blocked from fighting Assad in this region, geographically. Before February 2016, the rebels in northern rural Aleppo (Azaz, Mare etc) were directly connected to the rebel capital of East Aleppo city (and from there to south and west Aleppo and Idlib and Hama). However, that month the YPG, directly backed by massive Russian air strikes, conquered a swathe of Arab-majority, rebel-held territory, centering on the iconic revolutionary town of Tal Rifaat (from where the great rebel attack on ISIS began in 2014), which cut the corridor between Aleppo city and the Turkish border in half. In the east, this YPG offensive met up with ISIS-held territory northeast of Aleppo (near al-Bab) and stopped. Since neither the YPG nor ISIS fight Assad, this meant there was a solid barrier between the northern rebels and Aleppo.
This meant that when Assad launched his full encirclement siege of Aleppo, which led to its final crushing the end of last year, a major reason, if not the major reason, for Assad’s victory was this YPG bloody occupation of Tal Rifaat (from where thousands fled north) which blocked the entire north of Syria (the fact that the siege itself was also directly aided by the YPG’s blocking of the Castello Rd, the eastern entrance, is another thing that I’m sure some will be able to explain away).
So the Turkey-backed rebels in ES don’t fight Assad there because they can’t, and the reason they can’t, and the reason Turkey’s operation therefore got US-Russian blessing, was because of the YPG’s own reactionary actions. Late to complain. Of course, for the rebels in Azaz-Mare, after being cut off by the YPG, it was entirely logical to get Turkish aid to drive ISIS from the entire strip of Arab - and Turkmen – majority territory up to Jarablus, and including al-Bab. It was former rebel territory (and has nothing to do with ‘Rojava’). Nothing wrong with that; they were already fighting ISIS for years.
What many believe was wrong, however, and here is the US/Russian Sawhat connection, the connection to “counterrevolution by proxy”, was that apart from these local trapped rebels, Turkey also encouraged some thousands of rebel fighters to come the long way around, via Turkey’s Idlib border, from Idlib and southwest Aleppo, overland hundreds of miles via Turkey, to Jarablus, to join the ES operation, rather than stay and therefore be ready to defend Aleppo when Assad launched the second, decisive, siege (Turkey had encouraged this after the rebels broke the first siege of Aleppo last August, as if that was the end of the story). From Turkey’s point of view, it may well have simply been about putting its own nationalist interests ahead of the Syrian rebellion, nothing unexpected from a local capitalist state; but some claim it was worse: that it was part of Erdogan’s deal with Putin: that Turkey deliberately allow Assad to conquer east Aleppo in exchange for Putin’s support to Erdogan seizing that part of northern Syria to prevent a US-backed irredentist drive by the YPG to “link” Kurdish Afrin with Kurdish Kobani by conquering this non-Kurdish region.
Of course that doesn’t answer why these rebels would have fallen into that trap. Most likely they thought Turkey would help them get to help Aleppo from the north, either by driving the YPG occupation from Tal Rifaat, or by driving the ISIS occupation from al-Bab. The first never happened, and the second only really began after Aleppo had fallen.

“Since the start of the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria, Turkey has given weapons and other aid to some Syrian rebel groups. But this aid came with strings attached, including a requirement to support Turkey's anti-Rojava policy.”
How did this “requirement” manifest itself? Leaders can say what they want (and some of it was bad, but often their own political limitation; other times it was much better). But Afrin, Sheikh Maqsud and Kobani lived in a kind of strained at times, friendly at times, co-existence with the rebel-held territories all around them for years, until the onset of the Russian invasion in September 2015, when the YPG attempted to close the Castello Road out of Aleppo, the rebels’ life line, while PYD leaders were welcoming the invasion.  That is when the current round of hostilities began (and neither side have particularly clean hands in this).

“Turkey had different priorities and followed a different policy. It was still obsessed with the Kurdish threat, and continued to aid ISIS in its war against Rojava. It is only recently that the Turkey-ISIS alliance broke down, leading to fighting in al-Bab (though attempts have been made to patch it up).”
Wow, Turkey/FSA have driven ISIS from a great swathe of territory in northern Syria but Chris assures us that attempts have been made to “patch up” the alleged Turkey/ISIS cooperation. No idea where that comes from. I think it is true that Turkey momentarily manoeuvred with ISIS against Kobani in late 2014, not by “supporting” ISIS in any material way as such, but by preventing PKK fighters from crossing to aid the defence etc. But this conjunctural manoeuvre where Turkey tried to hurt a worse enemy (from its viewpoint) did not reflect any overall Turkish policy of “supporting ISIS” as we often sloppily hear; on the contrary, Turkey has been tightly allied to ISIS’ main enemies for years and indeed armed them during the great rebel drive against ISIS in 2014.

“For the SDF, Turkey and ISIS are the most immediate threats.  Hence the cooperation with the US against ISIS, and the recently reported cooperation with Assad forces in the west of Manbij district against the Turkish invasion. Of course, neither the US nor Assad regime is a reliable ally.”

The only reliable allies of the Kurds are the Syrian masses, and the divide between the Kurdish and Arab masses, between Kurdish-led and Arab-led revolutionary forces is indeed a major problem for the revolution, but trying to pin the blame for it entirely or even mostly on the rebel side is a laugh. Leaderships on both sides have shown a great deal of short-sightedness, and while that may be expected from the generally non-leftist traditions of most rebel leaderships, it is a major stain on the PYD which many are talking up not just as leftist in origin but as the … “true revolutionaries.” “Recently reported cooperation with Assad” indeed Chris. Much, much older than that.
Yes, the foreign interventions, all of them, are a major part of this problem of division, including of course Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policy, and the fact that, abandoned by the world, the rebels had little choice but to depend on Turkey which gave them a life-line for its own reasons (mainly because Turkey was overwhelmed with 3 million Syrian refugees and hence saw the need to try to remove the source of this massive instability, ie the Assad regime). If the rebels had taken Turkish air cover to conquer Kurdish majority Afrin or Kobani from the PYD it would have been a major crime, but that never happened. What did happen was that the YPG took Russian air cover – air cover from the major global imperialist ransacker and destroyer of Syria – to conquer Arab-majority territory from the rebels, which later led to Assad’s crushing of Aleppo.
From: Marxism <marxism-bounces at lists.csbs.utah.edu> on behalf of Michael Karadjis via Marxism <marxism at lists.csbs.utah.edu>
Sent: Saturday, 4 March 2017 5:33:06 PM
To: Chris Slee
Subject: [Marxism] US Arab Spring policy? Third party counter-revolution

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